Meeting Robert Burns
The Scots are famous worldwide for their storytelling abilities. Whether through prose or poetry, they have entertained listeners and readers for centuries. One literary figure seems to transcend all others in terms of popularity, however, and it is our pleasure this week to share some trivia about the life and poetry of a much beloved Scotsman. His work has been described as being ahead of its time, and having equal relevance to the parish as well as the universe.
Robert Burns, born 25 January 1759, grew up in the poverty and hardship that was usual for farm laborers and their children at that time. By all accounts he had very little formal schooling and received much of his education from his father, William. Despite William’s attempts to improve his family’s circumstances, Robert and his siblings, along with their mother Agnes, migrated as tenants from farm to farm in the Alloway area of Scotland for most of his youth. The birthplace of Robert Burns, however, is preserved as a public museum known as Burns Cottage, while other homes he inhabited remain as memorials in Dumfries and Auldgirth, as well as monuments not only throughout Scotland, but also in New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
Families not accustomed to the Scots dialectwill likely find it useful to encounter the works of Burns in audio form long before trying to read them! Luckily, the BBC archive has many samples from which to choose. Listening is an important part of children’s language development and, one might argue, particularly so in poetry where rhythm and rhyme are concerned. The act of listening rather than reading will also make the experience more authentic since many of Burns’ early poems were memorized and recited long before they were written down.
Auld Lang Syne is recognised as the Guinness Book of Records as one of the three most popular songs in the English Language. Strictly speaking, Burns composed only the tune to this piece; the words were acknowledged by him to be already “ancient” when he set them to music in 1788. A large part of his work, in addition to producing original material, was the collection and organization of poetry and songs of Scotland’s rich heritage.
His labor of love preserved an extensive library of cultural material for future generations. In his lifetime, however, Robert Burns experienced inconsistency at many levels and systematic ill health. When he died, at the young age of 37, he was deemed to be destitute.
Modern artists such as Bob Dylan have stated that they received inspiration from the words of Scotland’s favorite bard. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln could recite his poetry by heart. The poet’s influence has even traveled farther afield; British born astronaut, Nick Patrick, took a miniature book of Burns’ poetry beyond what we could call “the parish” and out into space on a 2010 mission. That book has now traversed 5.7 million miles and 217 orbits of planet Earth! What a journey!